Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Albuquerque/Santa Fe

Next to Normal

Desert Rose Playhouse
Review by Wally Gordon

Also see Wally's review of 4000 Miles

Whomp! The audience gasps. Slam! the audience laughs. Smash! The audience is on the verge of tears. Next to Normal, the Pulitzer Prize-winning play, which recently opened at Albuquerque's Desert Rose Playhouse, carries as great an emotional wallop as any play I've seen in New Mexico in 40 years, and the power keeps on roiling throughout two long acts.

It is stunning, not least for its utter idiosyncrasy. Close your eyes and imagine a rock musical about how a middle-aged bipolar woman destroys herself and her family, experiments with just about every known form of medication and self-medication, fails to heal but at the end survives with a tiny ray, a glimmer, the most minuscule possible glint of hope. I for one could not imagine such a play, and I went to its opening believing such a performance defied possibility.

It turns out this story is not only possible but a triumph—a triumph of fragile human dignity and stubborn perseverance over everything we fear will destroy them. The play's lead character Diana (Karen Byers) put me in mind of Ernest Hemingway's eponymous hero in "The Old Man and The Sea": "But man is not made for defeat ... A man can be destroyed but not defeated."

This amateur production has lots of very ragged edges, not least that of Adam Phillips, who has the thankless task of rescuing the role of Diana's husband Dan after the original actor fell ill only two weeks before opening night. That the power of Next to Normal survives all the glitches is a tribute not only to the book and lyrics of Brian Yorkey and the music of Tom Kitt but the deft performance of Byers. Diana's bipolar swings range from rage to sobs, from joy to despair, from strutting dominance to curled-in-a-ball embryonic feebleness. Throughout, however, Byers, a veteran of Broadway, Off-Broadway, and national tours, is in command of the stage.

Effectively supporting her is Clara Lambert as Diana and Dan's adolescent daughter Natalie. She smoothly navigates the transition from the leather-clad, black-mesh-tights harshness of act one to the short-haired, innocent-faced naif of act two—not an easy feat for an experienced actor but rather amazing for one who is still a college student (University of Toronto). Cash Martinez's fine voice fills out the tricky role of Gabe, the ghostly son of Diana and Adam. Bryan Durden, as Henry, the teenage would-be lover of Natalie, also has a strong voice. Christopher Chase agilely performs the roles of Diana's doctors, both real and imagined.

Director Michael Montroy manages to tame this big musical (which includes an on-stage three-piece band) for the small, bare, black box stage of the Desert Rose.

The title song, and one of the show's most touching, is sung by Natalie as she tries to console her mother: "I don't need a life that's normal. That's way too far away. But something next to normal would be OK. Yeah, something next to normal, that's the thing I'd like to try. Close enough to normal to get by."

The hopefulness that touches the play's conclusion is encapsulated in this lyric: "There's a world I know. A place where we can go where the pain will go away. There's a world where the sun shines each day."

Next to Normal, through September 1, 2019, at Desert Rose Playhouse, 6901 Montgomery Blvd. NE, Albuquerque NM. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. For information and reservations, visit desertroseplayhouse.net or call 505-563-0316.


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